On Aug.12, 2017 violence erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia at the hands of a “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. Many statues have been called into question due to their deeply rooted connections to the system of slavery and racism the Confederate army fought to maintain during the Civil War.
The Southern Poverty Law Center amassed research regarding the cumulative total of Confederate statues, schools and other monuments. Their research shows that the majority of confederate monuments were set up between the 1890s and the 1920s (the Jim Crow Era) with another small spike between the 1950s and the 1960s (the Civil Rights Era). In relation to history, these were periods of pervasive racist ideology resulting in horrific violence against people of color. It is not a coincidence that the periods with the most white nostalgia for the Civil War closely align with periods of the most evident racial tension. The majority of these statues were not erected directly after the Civil War to memorialize specific soldiers. Rather, they were erected more than six decades later to memorialize and remember a time when racism was unchallenged.
For evidence of what group these monuments embolden, simply listen for the groups most forcefully supporting them. In this case, those most vehemently protecting these monuments are white supremacists and neo-nazis.
These statues, largely honoring leaders of the rebellious uprising of the southern states, are not about remembering or respecting America’s history. The implication of a statue is to glorify the person cast in metal, not merely to remember them. These statues are and always have been about asserting power over minorities seeking equal treatment and an end to racially motivated violence.
The desire to preserve our nation’s history is understandable and not inherently negative. However, the proposed structure of the debate around the removal of these monuments is misleading. The debate is not “should we preserve our nation’s history?” The debate is and always has been “how should we preserve our nation’s history?”
Consider how Germany remembers their history. Today, Germany enforces strict laws banning the use of Nazi symbols, hate speech and Holocaust denial. In Germany, the only Nazi imagery remains in museums, educating the public about the horrific details of the Nazi regime, including the museum built where the Gestapo headquarters once stood, reclaiming that space for the victims. It is mandatory in Germany today to teach the truth about their country’s crimes during the war. In all these actions, Germany has taken clear steps to preserve their history with accountability to the victims, steps America has never taken.
It is our responsibility as citizens to create the narrative around our history moving forward. Is our collective narrative one of arrogance or humility? Are we unwilling to admit that we have committed great wrongs and then defended those wrongs for far too long? It is of the utmost importance to preserve our history with a framework of empathy and humility. This framework requires an accountability to the victims of our nation’s greatest sins, a promise that we will do better by them and by others we have wronged. It is culturally irresponsible to protect oppressors by forgetting the oppressed.
There are many ways to preserve American history without supporting or condoning the beliefs Americans and the American government have held in the past: Erect monuments to those who have suffered at the hands of our nation, those we enslaved, killed and displaced; teach schoolchildren the truth about the actions, both right and wrong, of our forefathers; move forward toward more authentic action in support of the virtues we purport to believe in: justice, liberty and equality.
We, the citizens of America, have a choice presented to us now: What are we preserving? If the answer is truly our nation’s history, then the next question must be, how do we preserve our history with accountability to those we have wronged?
Abby is a senior English major from Greenwood, Indiana.